Why It's Called the President's "Cabinet"

President Obama holding a meeting of his cabinet secretaries
President Obama Holds a Cabinet Meeting At White House. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The president's Cabinet includes the Vice President of the United States and the heads of the 15 executive departments — the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Attorney General.

At the option of the president, other officials typically holding Cabinet-rank, include the White House Chief of Staff; the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; the Director of the Office of Management and Budget; the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers; the Administrator of the Small Business Administration; and the U.S. Trade Representative.

The president can also designate other senior White House staff members as members of the Cabinet, However, this is a symbolic status marker and does not, apart from attending Cabinet meetings, confer any additional powers.

Why a "Cabinet?"

The term "cabinet" comes from the Italian word "cabinetto," meaning "a small, private room." A good place to discuss important business without being interrupted. The first use of the term is attributed to James Madison, who described the meetings as “the president’s cabinet.”

More of a tradition than a requirement, the concept of a Cabinet sprang from a debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 over whether the president should wield executive authority solely or as advised by a cabinet of ministers or a privy council, as in Great Britain. As a result, delegates agreed that Article II, Section 1, Clause 1 of the Constitution should vest “all executive power” exclusively in the president and authorize—but not order the president to “require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices.” The collection of executive departments became known as the cabinet. The Constitution specifies neither the number of executive departments nor their duties.

Does the Constitution Establish the Cabinet?

Not directly. Constitutional authority for the Cabinet comes from Article 2, Section 2, which says that the president "... may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices." Similarly, the Constitution does not specify which or how many executive departments should be created. Just another indication that the Constitution is a flexible, living document, well capable of governing our country without stifling its growth. Since it is not specifically established in the Constitution, the president’s Cabinet is one of the several examples of amending the Constitution by custom, rather than Congress. 

Which President Established the Cabinet?

President George Washington convened the first cabinet meeting on February 25, 1793. Present at the meeting were President Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary or War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.

Then as now, that first Cabinet meeting featured tension when Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton butted heads on the question of centralizing the then widely fragmented U.S. banking system through the creation of a national bank. When the debate became particularly heated, Jefferson, who opposed a national bank, tried to calm the waters in the room by suggesting that the acrimonious tone of the debate had no impact on the achieving a sound governmental structure. “The pain was for Hamilton and myself but the public experienced no inconvenience,” stated Jefferson.

How Are the Cabinet Secretaries Chosen?

The Cabinet secretaries are appointed by the president of the United States but must be approved by a simple majority vote of the Senate. The only qualification is that a department secretary cannot be a current member of Congress or hold any other elected office.

How Much are the Cabinet Secretaries Paid?

Cabinet-level officers are currently paid $210,700 per year. Their pay is set annual by Congress as part of its approval of the federal budget.

How Long Do the Cabinet Secretaries Serve?

Members of the Cabinet (except for the Vice President) serve at the pleasure of the president, who can dismiss them at will for no cause. All federal public officials, including Cabinet members, are also subject to impeachment by the House of Representatives and trial in the Senate for "treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors".

Generally, Cabinet members serve as long as the president who appointed them remains in office. Executive department secretaries answer only to the president and only the president can fire them. They are expected to resign when a new president takes office since most incoming presidents choose to replace them, anyway. Certainly not a stable career, but U.S. Secretary of State 1993-2001, would certainly look good on a resume.

How Often Does the President's Cabinet Meet?

There is no official schedule for Cabinet meetings, but presidents generally try to meet with their Cabinets on a weekly basis. Besides the president and department secretaries, Cabinet meetings are usually attended by the vice president, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and other top-level officials as determined by the president.

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Longley, Robert. "Why It's Called the President's "Cabinet"." ThoughtCo, May. 4, 2021, thoughtco.com/why-its-called-the-presidents-cabinet-3322192. Longley, Robert. (2021, May 4). Why It's Called the President's "Cabinet". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-its-called-the-presidents-cabinet-3322192 Longley, Robert. "Why It's Called the President's "Cabinet"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/why-its-called-the-presidents-cabinet-3322192 (accessed June 2, 2023).